Robots, virtual doctors, and more: How these hospitals are 'automating the mundane'

Reimbursement challenges still remain

Toronto-based Humber River Hospital has had great success with its "all-digital" hospital, where robots deliver everything from blood samples to lunch trays, Beth Kutscher writes for Modern Healthcare.

The 656-bed, $1.8 billion facility, which opened in October 2015, has more than 700 human employees who work alongside automated robots that help complete daily tasks. Robots sort medication, deliver food, and transport blood samples from patients to the lab.

The tech investments go beyond robots roaming the halls. Nearly 75 percent of the hospital's behind-the-scenes operations, including laundry and food delivery, are automated.

By "automating the mundane," says Munzoor Shaikh, a health care consultant, hospitals can see immediate cost savings. Automating pharmacies and supply chains not only decreases costs; it can increase patient safety by eliminating human errors.

A growing trend

Other hospitals are starting to dip their toes in the digital waters.

University of Southern California's Roski Eye Institute will be among the first providers to pair patients with "virtual doctors" in virtual-reality simulations.

The virtual doctors are lifelike models based on real human specialists, but they're driven by software similar to Apple's Siri voice assistant. The software can recognize parts of a question and provide information based on what it hears, including details about complications and side effects of certain medications.

At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, meanwhile, "you might consider the building itself as technology," says Brett Simon, director of Sloan Kettering's new surgery center.

The short-stay facility uses technology to help patients recover from surgery more quickly. Real-time locating tools allow clinicians to see how often a patient is walking, which helps them assess the patient's recovery timeline and progress toward rehab goals.

In the coming months, Sloan Kettering also plans to release a smartphone app that will allow patients to send secure texts and photo messages to their providers. Staff can then reach out to patients whom they consider at risk of an adverse event.

Challenges

Going fully digital can be an expensive investment. Many health systems can afford to implement advanced technologies only because they pay for them through their own insurance plans.

"Medicare doesn't pay for any of this," says Colorado-based Centura Health's telehealth director Samantha Lippolis. "It's a tough ROI" (Kutscher, Modern Healthcare, 4/30).

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